“There their first crop of children was born, but as I was of a later vintage, I do not remember anything about it. I was postponed — postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown new state and needed attractions.”
— “Chapters From My Autobiography,” Mark Twain
Hannibal, Missouri, has two things that set it apart from most small towns in America. One, it sits on the banks of the country’s great river, the Mississippi. Two, one of America’s foremost authors spent his formative years there.
Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, moved with his family to Hannibal when he was 4 years old, and stayed until he was 18. He used the people he met there, and the town itself, in dozens of novels, stories and sketches — most famously in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
On a trip earlier this month, I had the chance to visit Hannibal, now a town of about 18,000 residents. They have not forgotten their famous son. Businesses downtown include the Mark Twain Family Restaurant and Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium. Attractions include the Mark Twain Riverboat (which you can see on the right in that top photo). And the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum comprises several buildings; the museum includes three floors worth of exhibits from Clemens’ life, the various editions of his books and the movies and other programs based on them.
That sounds like a lot, but it probably won’t take even the most dedicated Twain fan more than a couple of hours to make his or her way through the complex. Many of the outlying buildings — including Clemens’ boyhood home, his father’s justice of the peace office and the home of Huck Finn inspiration Tom Blankenship — don’t have a lot in the way of interactive exhibits. One of the buildings, the “Becky Thatcher House,” is closed until funds for renovations are raised.
As for the town of Hannibal itself — — it reminded me of some southern West Virginia towns whose businesses have been decimated by various economic forces. To be fair, it was out of season for (most) tourists, and several attractions had signs up saying they were closed for the season. With a bunch of people on the street, it might feel completely different.
But the one thing that remains from Clemens’ childhood, the one thing that you can imagine yourself seeing exactly the way he saw it, is the river. We listened to Twain’s “Chapters From My Autobiography” on the way out to Missouri, and one of the hundreds of anecdotes involved young Sam Clemens and a friend clandestinely ice-skating on the frozen Mississippi after dark. Clemens said they were “halfway to Illinois” when they heard the ominous sound of the ice cracking. He and his friend headed back to the Missouri shore, but they had to wait every time the moon went behind a cloud, because they couldn’t see where the ice was still good. Clemens made it back safe, but his friend did not; the boy plunged into the frigid water, fell ill as a result and eventually lost his hearing. It’s a good story on its own, but to hear it and then look out over the Mississippi — man, that is a big river. Halfway across is a long way from land.
Clemens has a familial connection to West Virginia as well. His grandparents, Samuel and Pamela Clements, lived on the banks of the Ohio River in what is now Mason County – although I seem to remember there’s some dispute over the particulars of that history. But there’s a highway historical marker, so it must be true, right?